CFL alive and well

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 9:48 AM ET

There used to be a time, not that long ago, when selling the CFL was like selling paint-by-number Elvis portraits outside an art gallery.

Potential new customers would just roll their eyes, shake their heads in disbelief or, worst of all, extend their heartfelt pity.

Those times are gone. Nobody knows that better than the guy whose job it is to sell the game in Edmonton.

"The last few years have been very good for the CFL," said Eskimos marketing director Dave Jamieson. "Fans want to know that their league and their teams are in good shape. Instead of all the other stuff, the CFL is about the football now."

While the once-proud National Hockey League suffers the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, its once-poor cousin is alive and well. The CFL was enjoying a renaissance long before a year-long work stoppage alienated millions of hockey fans - but now the hot ticket is even hotter.

A down-to-earth league with down-to-earth players might be just what sports fans in Canada, oh so tired of hearing players balk at an "insulting" $42.5-million US salary cap, need. At the very least, there are certainly some NHL season-ticket holders with a few extra bucks to spend.

"We're hoping that people who may have been casual fans in the past will look at becoming season- ticket holders," said Jamieson. "I think we're going to see an upswing. We've already seen it on the corporate sponsorship side, we've seen great growth there. We've been trending up in a lot of areas."

And it's not just the Eskimos. The Argos won a championship, the Stampeders, with Tom Higgins determined to turn the franchise around, are off to a good start with QB Henry Burris and slotback Jermain Copeland. Canada's other major market, Vancouver, made it to the championship game and has stability and leadership under Wally Buono. And Hamilton's rookie coach just won the Annis Stukis trophy.

"This league is pointed in the right direction," said Jamieson. "There have been changes, new faces and there's a real sense of interest in the whole league."

When you're on a roll, everything seems to fall right into place - like a new CFL schedule, released yesterday, that has the Esks playing nothing but Friday and Saturday night at home. They couldn't have drawn it up any better themselves.

"Our fans have told us loudly and clearly that they like Friday night football, so this schedule is as good as we've seen in recent years," said Jamieson. "We're really happy with it."

The Esks open the season June 24 against Ottawa and, in the most-anticipated regular-season game of the schedule, will host Higgins and the revitalized Stampeders in the Labour Day rematch Sept. 9.

The Saskatchewan Roughriders, always a big draw, make their only visit Saturday, Oct. 15. The Grey Cup champion Argos and Montreal Alouettes visit Aug. 20 and 26.

"Last year our schedule was all over the place - we have five different days and five different start times," said Jamieson. "This gives us a level of consistency, and in all the fan surveys we've done, Friday nights keep coming back as a key date for us."

And it'll be a new-look Eskimo team on several fronts - from Danny Maciocia on the sidelines to redesigned uniforms on the field. League sponsor Reebok is giving all the CFL jerseys a makeover.

"All the uniforms will be revamped, so the whole league is going to look different, fresh," said Jamieson, adding the changes will be subtle.

Don't worry about an XFL-looking makeover.

"It's fair to say we probably fall into that group with the Yankees and Montreal Canadiens," said Jamieson.

"You can fresh it up a little, but people expect a certain look from the Edmonton Eskimos."


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